Cinthia Marcelle

Mid-career Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle (born Belo Horizonte, 1974) first came to my attention for photographs she’d made together with the South African artist Jean Meeran, in which Marcelle disappeared into the landscape, dressed in a cape with matching colours so that self and city elided (Capa Morada, 2003). Over the next decade her short films recorded actions that intervened in urban circuits—rather like Cildo Meireles, who subverted the capitalist circuit of Coca Cola—by altering repetition, scale and presentation (typically filming from a remote viewpoint to emphasize the resulting image rather than pulling the viewer into the thick of the action). In Confrontation, 2005, not one, but a whole line of fire eaters entertains at traffic lights, enough to block the traffic when the lights turn green; a crowd is choreographed in grey (Grey Demonstration, 2006); vehicle owners have to push their cars home (Automobile, 2012). More recently, various installations have staged or implied forms of labour to resonant effect; for example, Education by Stone (MOMA PS1, New York, 2016) saw Marcelle push numerous rods of chalk, a traditional teaching material, into the school-turned-gallery. And at the 2017 Venice Biennale, she installed a slanted grate across the floor of the Brazilian Pavilion to create instability suggestive of what was happening politically in her home nation.

Cinthia Marcelle, installation view, “The Family in Disorder: Truth or Dare,” 2018, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, UK. Images courtesy Modern Art Oxford.

Marcelle, who had never been to Oxford before, stayed in a college to prepare for her show there. She was struck by the simultaneity of outward-facing and inwardly focused concerns in the university’s collegiate system—more so when she found that a comparable inward-outward dichotomy was replicated in the architecture of Modern Art Oxford (MAO), where the exhibition was installed. At the front is an unusually high-ceilinged and well-windowed Upper Gallery, originally built for brewing beer. At the back is the lower-ceilinged, more enclosed Piper Gallery, with little natural light.

That contrast gave Marcelle the idea of presenting the same materials in both spaces, but in relatively open and closed forms. Moreover, as there are two staircases, it is a matter of chance whether a visitor arrives first at the closed or open formation. In my case it was the former. Fifteen materials, many typical of the behind-the-scenes business of installing an exhibition, were stacked neatly to form a waist-high barrier across the room: cotton bolts, black plastic sheeting, brown paper, bricks, gaffer tape, hemp rope, notebooks. The aesthetic tended towards the minimal, and the implied attitude towards the audience was one of exclusion.

Moreover, the space of the Piper Gallery’s slightly smaller area was mapped onto the Upper Gallery by means of a black carpet, the same in both spaces. The latter has always seemed to me to have a much bigger area, but that is an illusory effect caused by the contrasts in height: the floor space is only 15% greater. A reverse effect emerges from the materials, which are sculpturally activated to take over the whole of the cavernous Upper Gallery; it is hard to credit that there is no more material here, taking up, as it does, several times more space than in the Piper Gallery.

For the Upper Gallery, six collaborators from the roster of artists who help from time to time with MAO’s installations were given a week to work with Marcelle’s choice of materials. Thus, their behind-the-scenes labour is foregrounded and becomes part of the exhibition itself. Marcelle had no view of the work in progress. She simply set some rules: leave the carpet intact, don’t make representations or any text and don’t use any tools – she felt that would have over-rationalized their gestures. Instead, the six had to work with the logic of materials, towards abstract ends. The gallery also set an understandable further constraint: there should be a visitor path navigable through the room. That benefits the visitor, but might lead the artists, rather thematically, to question what degree of freedom they had within an institutional space. The result was a chaotic but not incoherent environment with echoes of, say, a Phyllida Barlow or Carolee Schneemann installation.

There is a long tradition of using chance in the production of art, but Marcelle’s procedure is unusual in that she hasn’t set materials in motion (the way Roger Hiorns does with copper sulphate) or left a process to work through (such as in Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio, 2001), but has ceded her agency to other artists. She became, she says, “the audience to my own work.” That’s consistent with her stated desire to blend in with the surrounding world, to work with how “the improvisation with which we have to live, an improvisation in which lowly workers reveal themselves to be true artists, constitutes our common sensibility.”

Cinthia Marcelle, installation view, “The Family in Disorder: Truth or Dare,” 2018, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, UK. Images courtesy Modern Art Oxford.

The contrast between one room maximally ordered by a single controller and another radically disordered by a collective, albeit with the same material components, has plenty of metaphorical potential. The first part of the show’s title, “The Family in Disorder,” suggests conflict such as between how parents might wish their children to conform to social norms and the less thorough compliance likely in practice. There again, the family could be of materials or gestures. The second part of the title, “Truth or Dare,” stresses the contrast between a rational, truthful, disciplined, perhaps somewhat dull world and a freer, more imaginative but potentially more dangerous one. Marcelle has also spoken of the way the gallery is occupied as drawing parallels with the land occupation movement in Brazil, which has been led by the those pushed out by rising housing costs in large urban areas; and of the recent occupation of hundreds of Brazilian schools by students in a rebellion against government budget cuts that reduced the curriculum.

For the work of “Truth or Dare” itself, it looked like a video of a compass needle played on a monitor between the two main spaces, spinning back and forth to point the visitor to the equivalence between their contents. The title refers more edgily to the game Truth or Dare, in which a bottle is spun to decide who should be the next to be asked to answer a potentially revealing question, or else to undertake an embarrassing action. A closer look reveals that the footage is actually composed from photographs of a triangular slice of found concrete paving stone, put together to make it spin, seeking yet never finding stability; the soundtrack, echoing other games, is of a ball rattling around.

By way of a coda, there was an unusual, hidden fourth space behind an unmarked door that many might not dare to push, which contained the show’s only direct representations. These, consistent with the emphasis on conditions of display, were limited to the pedagogy of museums: six small pencil drawings by Marcelle of masks from various ethnographic collections around the world. On the one hand, an act of homage to rich cultural traditions; on the other, raising some doubt about their ongoing centrality.

“The Family in Disorder: Truth or Dare” ends up being quite a complicated show. Unpacked, the various components can be seen as experimental disruptions of established systems, somewhat like Marcelle’s early video pieces. Rather than engaging directly with the urban context, however, the primary interaction—as her exhibitions at PS1 and in Venice—is with the institutional context, which then turns out to stand in for broader issues.

“The Family in Disorder: Truth or Dare” was exhibited at Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, UK, from March 10 to May 27, 2018.

Paul Carey-Kent is a freelance art critic in Southampton, England, whose writings can be found at